​“Invaders”: Black Ladies of the ILGWU and the Emergence of the Early Civil Rights Movement in New York City

By Janette Gayle

Black female industrial workers are strikingly absent from literature on the Great Migration and black industrial labor in the twentieth century. Studies like Joe William Trotter Jr.’s Black Milwaukee, James R. Grossman’s Land of Hope, Richard W. Thomas’s Life for Us Is What We Make It, and Peter Gottlieb’s Making Their Own Way have advanced our understanding of black industrial workers and their importance in the making of black communities in the Midwest and northern urban industrial cities, but they focus almost exclusively on the experiences of skilled men.[1] Skilled women are virtually absent from these studies. But women were there. If we look closely at the sources, another picture comes into focus, one in which women such as Maida Springer Kemp, Eldica Riley, Edith Ransom, and thousands of others were indeed part of the black industrial workforce in New York City. If we look closely we will also see that the Great Migration was not a completely unskilled migration. Many migrants -- men as well as women -- were skilled workers. The ones who caught my eye were the dressmakers.

Occupational information recorded on passenger manifests as well as data from immigration reports show that between 1900 and 1930, some 13,250 West Indian dressmakers moved to the United States. These skilled women made up a significant portion of the black female immigrant population, and 20.5 percent (one in five) were dressmakers. It is not possible to state with accuracy how many migrated from the South; as an internal migration, the movement of African Americans out of the South was much less documented than international migrations. However, anecdotal evidence gleaned from oral history and written memoirs, supported by census reports, show that dressmakers were also part of the black exodus from the Southern U.S. Leaving the South and the West Indies, these women brought their skills with them to New York City where they used them to earn a living as self-employed dressmakers and in the New York garment industry. During the 1930s, as working conditions in the industry worsened and after protective labor legislation was enacted and put in place by the Roosevelt administration, black garment workers joined the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union). There they were exposed to ideas that helped shape their worldview and their sense of themselves as workers and persons worthy of full citizenship.

Maida Springer Kemp (on right) with two colleagues.  Undated but judging from hairstyles, it looks as it could be in the 1940s. Source: Flkr

Maida Springer Kemp (on right) with two colleagues.

Undated but judging from hairstyles, it looks as it could be in the 1940s. Source: Flkr

Edith Ransom of ILGWU Local 22 marching in the 1937 May Day Parade. Charles Zimmerman manager of Local 22 is to her right.  Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

Edith Ransom of ILGWU Local 22 marching in the 1937 May Day Parade. Charles Zimmerman manager of Local 22 is to her right.

Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

Black “Invaders”

In 1922 Benjamin Schlesinger, the president of the ILGWU, announced to the assembled delegates at the union’s annual convention that, “Colored women workers are invading the ladies’ garment trades.”[2] Schlesinger’s use of the term “invading” certainly exaggerated the scope of the change—in 1920, black female garment workers represented just 3.7 percent of the female workforce in the New York garment industry. But his comment did reflect a real shift in the racial composition of the industry’s workforce: between 1910 and 1920, the number of black women in the industry increased massively from 190 to 2,450.

Black women in New York began entering the garment industry in the waning years of World War I. Before that, the industry was virtually closed to them. To be sure, a few could be found among the ranks of garment workers, but they were a mere handful among the thousands of Jewish and Italian immigrants who traditionally formed the bulk of the industry’s workforce.

The war changed this. Production in the industry ramped up to meet the demand for fabric-based war-related goods. At the same time, the garment industry workforce shrank as native-born white women and second-generation Jewish women left the industry to work in factories that paid better and for more prestigious jobs in offices. Most importantly, restrictions on trans-Atlantic shipping severely interrupted the flow of immigrants from Europe. With their traditional labor supply dwindling, garment manufacturers and shop owners had little recourse but to open their doors to another labor supply: black women.

Taking advantage of the opportunity that had long been denied them, black women rushed to fill the vacancies, prompting Schlesinger’s comment in 1922. Over the next decade, black women continued to “invade” the industry and by 1930 over 5,500 were employed as garment workers. However, in contrast to their Jewish and Italian co-workers, few joined the union.

There are several reasons for this. In the 1920s jobs in the garment industry were plentiful. The economy was booming and consumption was at a peak. Besides, fashion was in and ready-made dresses were selling hot off the rack. However, the union had little time, energy, or resources to organize newcomers as it was locked in an internal struggle between the Communists and Socialist for control. Finally, we can’t discount the influence of Marcus Garvey. Vehemently against interracial labor organizing, Garvey argued that black workers best interest lay with capitalists and warned his followers to be “careful of the traps and pitfalls of white trade unionism.”[3] Given the large membership of the U.N.I.A. in New York it is very likely that many, if not most, black garment workers were Garveyites. Moreover, given Garvey’s deep influence in the black community, it is also hard to imagine that black women in the garment industry did not take his warnings into account when and if they thought about joining the union.

By the late 1920s, the context in which black garment workers made the decision not to join the union had changed drastically. As economic depression gripped the nation, jobs in the industry became scarce and exploitative conditions returned with a vengeance. Thousands of fly-by-night garment shops sprang up overnight and closed just as quickly—sometimes without paying their workers. All workers were affected by the downturn in the garment industry, but black garment workers were hit particularly hard. Already discriminated against because of their race and status as relative newcomers to the garment industry workforce, they were the first to be laid off when jobs became scarce.

Such precarious working conditions in the black community meant that not many black garment workers were willing to join the union. Black women’s earnings, essential to the economy of most black households even at the best of times, became even more critical during the Depression. While a few women became union members, the calculation made by the vast majority was that the very real present risk of losing one’s job outweighed the future possibility of improving it.

The NIRA Moment

This calculation changed in 1933 when Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)—a key part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan. Section 7A, in particular, strengthened workers with “the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing…free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents.” Emboldened by the protection that the new law offered, black garment workers began joining the ILGWU in much large numbers.
This changing tide was clearly visible in the ILGWU Dressmakers’ Strike that took place in August 1933, just two months after Section 7A went into effect. The strike was a turning point in the history of the union. Almost overnight, at least thirty thousand new members were enrolled. The strike also marked a watershed in the history of the union’s relationship with black garment workers—as black membership rose dramatically from about six hundred to well over four thousand.

But numbers alone don’t tell us the full story. What black female garment workers learned in the union gave them a new sense of themselves as women, workers, and community members, a new sense of their singular and collective power, and new expectations of what it meant to be a worker and citizen. In essence, it gave them a new worldview.

There were many keys to this transformation, but among the most powerful were their engagement with the union’s education program and their participation as both rank and file and as leaders in the democratic life of the union.

Taught by a left-leaning faculty, the union’s education program was intensively focused on a broad range of issues that had to do with worker’s rights and citizenship. Some of the courses that black as well as white garment workers took were: History of the American Labor Movement; the Structure, Government, and Administration of Trade Unions; American Politics in Theory and Practice, Marxism and Modern America; and the Economics of American Capitalism.

Remember, this was in the 1930s—less than a generation away from what historians speak of as the nadir of race relations in America. As people who came from the South and the British West Indies where notions of citizenship that included them were hardly discussed, where they were at best second-class citizens, it is not hard to imagine the impact that these courses had on them. Not only did they gain a language with which to articulate notions of their rights, they also must have been emboldened to demand full inclusion as citizens.

Marx famously makes the distinction between a class in itself versus a class for itself. While I don’t want to push the notion too far, there is some truth to the idea that the time spent in the union, through struggle and engagement with radical ideas that black garment workers became part of an interracial industrial working class—a class for itself. In the words of black ILGWU member Louise Brown, “[in] the union…[workers]… realized what collective bargaining [meant]…. all [workers] banded together for the purpose of securing decent living conditions.”[4]

As powerful as it was, consciousness-raising wasn’t enough. Exploited workers knew that their strength lay in numbers and could best be fought for in an organization like the ILGWU. The skills that black garment workers developed in the union were important. For example, the position of shop chairlady required several skills: management, administrative, communication, and public relations skills were all necessary. A position held by several black women, shop chairladies were representatives of the union in the garment shops. Their responsibilities included ensuring that members were in good standing with the union. This required collecting dues, remitting the monies collected to the union office, and keeping union members’ dues books current. Shop chairladies regularly conducted shop meetings with workers to pass on information from union leadership and to get feedback. They also had to submit written reports every other week to the union office on the general condition of the shop, the general atmosphere in the shop, and whether or not employers were honoring the terms of their agreements with the union.

The worldview black garment workers developed and the skills they honed in the ILGWU were not locked in place, but were transportable. Radicalized by the labor struggles of the 1930s and the ideas they were exposed to, black garment workers in New York took the skills they developed in the ILGWU into the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1940s and 1950s.

Janette Gayle is an Assistant Professor of History at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–1945 2d ed., (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985, 2007); James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Richard W. Thomas, Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915–1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992); Peter Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[2]Report of the General Executive Board to the Fifteenth Convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Chicago, May 3-15, 1920, pp. 50-51. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

[3] Marcus Garvey, “The Negro, Communism, Trade Unionism and His (?) Friend,” ed., Robert A. Hill, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. VI September 1924-December 1927 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 214.

[4] Justice, July 1, 1936. Justice was the news organ of the ILGWU. It was widely read among garment workers as well as by members of other unions.